A Senate committee approved a bill Thursday that will allow a panel to be created for the purpose of studying college affordability

Rutgers campus, College Avenue (Townsquare Media)

During its last session, the full legislature passed a bill sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) to create a panel to study college affordability. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the measure because he felt State Higher Education Secretary Rochelle Hendricks was already tackling the issue. On Thursday, a Senate committee took testimony from Hendricks and then approved Sweeney's reintroduced bill.

"I am committed to identifying some homegrown approaches to the issues of affordability," Hendricks said. "We're also looking quite honestly at financial models that are most effective not only elsewhere, but here in the State of New Jersey. It's a complex issue when you start talking about affordability."

Affordability has been identified as a critical issue, according to Hendricks. That's evidently not good enough for Sweeney, who reintroduced his legislation to create the New Jersey College Affordability Study Commission. The Senate Higher Education Committee cleared the bill Thursday after Hendricks' testimony.

"The governor's veto was simply without merit," Sweeney said. "Students are drowning in debt when they graduate, an unfair burden that impacts them for years. We cannot stand on the sidelines and allow this to continue. The governor must review the facts and data on this issue and conclude there is no other option than to move forward with the commission. Our current system is completely unfair to thousands of students."

Among other things, the commission would study the creation of a proposed Pay It Forward pilot program. If the panel determines the program is a good idea, it would replace the system of charging students tuition and fees for enrollment at public institutions of higher education and instead allow students to pay back a percentage of their income upon graduation for a certain number of years.

"Any options that may help ease the burden of college expenses on New Jersey families and allow more students to pursue college aspirations are worth exploring," Sweeney said. "We must make college more affordable for our residents and every idea should be explored."